Islands of unsustainability

John Rawls’s (1971) notion of national self-sufficiency in terms of resources is about as far from our current globalized world as we can get, in terms of theory aimed at non-ideal applications. Globalization is a fact of life. And yet, with each displacement in our life, we have expended more and more energy to have a never-ending commodity change for each product stretched across the globe, on call and ready at hand for our whim to flick a switch and watch, do, or order something.

Just this week, a new study is out showing that our music streaming, from services such as Spotify and Apple Music, are in fact, creating billowing clouds of greenhouse gasses, leading to more destruction even as we have “virtualized” the materiality of music listening. The cloud–which after all just means storing your data on somebody else’s computers/servers and accessing it via satellite or cable/fiber-optics–is an expensive process to maintain, after all. It turns out that “owning” your own stuff in a place-based location (on your device) makes much more sense ecologically, than having it distributed all over the world and calling it in on a regular basis.

Rawls’ (1999: 39 and 106–7) aim for polity self-sufficiency suggests that a polity may not inflict negative environmental externalities on other polities, and yet, that is what the top 20% economically are doing to the bottom 80%. We (the royal, cosmopolitan, globalized western “we”) are happy to live a fabulous lifestyle as long as the carnage from our consumption are pushed out of sight and out of mind. This is precisely what Ulrich Beck refers to as the “distanciation” of the effects of our actions.

But what allows us to maintain this unsustainability is not that the top 20% don’t care about the consequences, but that we have bought into a sort of exceptionalism that suggests that we and our loved ones will be spared from the worst of the environmental fall-out. We’ve bought into American Exceptionalism Gone Wild–the rampant idea that somehow – through wealth, technology, national identity, gender, race, etc. – that we will be spared. That we are God’s Chosen One’s and can stick out our tongue and thumb our nose at the rest of the world. (Of course, such performances of behavior, implicit or explicit, prove that such people absolutely have no concept of god or powers beyond themselves.) In other words, there is a certain strata of the population, that truly believes that they will get off scot-free by cheating: barraging the world with their waste without having to clean it up or other pay for it. It is the ultimate planetary intergenerational ponzi scheme.

It is also the ultimate abdication of responibility. As we hash out details (what Freud referred to as the “narcissism of minor differences”), the world burns. And elites are quite happy about it too. Because then no nation or their people or leader has to be responsible, and can carry on with the charade. As Elinor Ostrom writes:

“Reducing emissions now is more urgent than reaching an international agreement to reduce emissions by a given percentage, which might not be achieved for some time into the future. We do not face a situation where little harm is caused by overuse until we pass a given threshold, as may be the case with some renewable resources” (2010, 28; italics in original, bold added). No, what is at stake is the world, and nothing less. Fly, eat meat, and burn fossil fuels at your own expense, with each joule and calorie added to you account. There is no pawning off our responsibility any longer.

(Also See Bruno Latour’s Down To Earth and Michele Serre’ The Parasite)

Smoking as Acceptable Rebellion.

Notes from a debrief of Philip Morris’s 1998 Litter Focus Group read: “Non-smokers tend to give smokers a lot of slack about throwing down a butt,” claiming that “throwing it on the ground eliminates fire risk,” and that litter is a “natural result of outdoor smoking areas.”  For smokers, littering is a “natural part of the ritual”; an act of “rebellion”; a “small act of civil disobedience”; and an acceptable demonstration of power in “stepping on a lit object and grinding it.” To deal with the “issue” of litter, the key was “don’t be preachy,” and to have “no billboards, no advertising,” “don’t give antis any more reason to yell.”

The tobacco industry aimed to successfully frame littering, just like smoking itself, as an act of “acceptable rebellion” brings pleasure through expressing angst inexpressible elsewhere in society. Protecting and providing a safe space for these meaningless but environmentally polluting expressions of “civil disobedience” was a priority for the industry to retain and attract as many smokers as possible. It also was in the interest of other managerial regimes, such as corrupt governments to give people certain guilty pleasures that they could believe that they were being free with, so that they wouldn’t clamor for real freedoms, like clean water, clean air, a universal basic income, wealth equity, or taking their commons back.

References

Robinson & Maites. N331; The R&M Creative Brief [Internet]. 1998 Apr [cited 2019 Mar 26]. (Truth Tobacco Industry Documents). Report No.: ypyg0085. Available from: https://www.industrydocuments.ucsf.edu/tobacco/docs/#id=ypyg0085

Donohue C. Litter Focus Group De-Brief; N331 [Internet]. 1998 Jan [cited 2019 Mar 26]. (Truth Tobacco Industry Documents). Report No.: npyg0085. Available from: https://www.industrydocuments.ucsf.edu/tobacco/docs/#id=npyg0085

Proctor RN. Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition. 1 edition. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2012. 752 p.

Hendlin Y, Anderson SJ, Glantz SA. “Acceptable rebellion”: marketing hipster aesthetics to sell Camel cigarettes in the US. Tob Control. 2010 Jun;19(3):213–22. DOI: 10.1136/tc.2009.032599

New Article in Biosemiotics: I am a Fake Loop

My article, “I Am a Fake Loop: the Effects of Advertising-Based Artificial Selection,” just appeared in the journal Biosemiotics. You can read it here for free.

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In this piece, I explore Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz’s ethological understandings of the human animal, and how certain instinctual heuristics override rational control and analysis. Using the case study of advertising, I investigate how various ways in which human life is subverted through the artificial selection of single-metric selection processes of profit. The myopia of profit even undermines itself in short-term extractivism, so it is definitionally unsustainable.

Also interrogated in this study is the way in which desires are manufactured. Using Tinbergen’s discovery of “supernormal stimuli” and Deirdre Barret’s application of this ethological finding to human epidemiology, I take a public health approach to supernormal stimuli and find that marketing and advertising strangely undermine their form of mimicry, deceiving both the intended targets and the signaler simultaneously. Analyzing sophisticated mass mimicry in contemporary culture, in both intended and unintended forms, allows for insights into how to decolonize human evolution from these insidious forms of artificial selection.

E-cigarette e-waste litter is an environmental health harm that can be stopped before it metastasizes

My op-ed in the American Journal of Public Health that appeared this week discusses the new tobacco waste stream of electronic cigarette waste. Electronic waste is already the fastest growing waste stream globally. Creating a new product that has no current responsible recycling infrastructure, and that may be littered widely, contributing to plastic sinks such as the Great Pacific Gyre (garbage patch) in the Pacific Ocean, is a mistake. This op-ed discusses the problem and some of the solutions that can be taken to avoid a possible environmental health and ecological disaster.

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Photo of a dropped Juul vape on SF MUNI by Julia McQuoid, used with permission

Regarding this article and other research I am conducting, I also wrote a piece in the online academic blog/forum The Conversation on e-cigarettes as the Nespresso of tobacco products, environmentally speaking.

This article was republished by the University of California, Salon, Phys.org, The Houston Chron, the Connecticut Post, The Fresh Toast, Business Insider, EcoWatch, The Chicago Tribune, and many other news sources.

Reuters also interviewed me for a piece titled “E-cigarette policy should consider environmental effects, expert says.”

For my other writing on e-waste, please see my interview with Eric Lundgren in Nautilus.

 

UCSF Chemical Industry Documents

A couple weeks ago, UCSF launched our newest collection of industry documents. The UCSF Industry Documents archive is a repository of almost one hundred million pages of previously secret industry documents now searchable for the public due to discovery and legal mandate.

These documents give unparalleled insight into how the world’s largest and arguably most harmful corporations operate. By reading how these industries regard their own practices, the public, academics, and policy-makers can be more realistic in assessing the rhetoric and claims of toxic industries.

These documents also point to how industries have worked closely with government organizations to cover up bad science and mislead the public. These documents show the important steps that must be taken to restore the credibility of scientific research in the public eye.

 

Whither the Relevance of Print Media?

The great American newspapers have shot themselves in the foot. In the race against online media and decentralized user-based content, when they haven’t been bought up by conglomerates with the intention to destroy them or use them as organs of ideology, newspapers have repeatedly cranked up the sensationalism, obscured good reporting with blaring ads, and made themselves irrelevant.

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The San Francisco Chronicle, our stalwart liberal rag of the Bay Area, regularly obscures its first page with these cover-up inserts that blot out half of the cover with some strident mock-serious ad. While of course they are doing this (1) to obscure the content so people have to buy the paper to read the front page, and moreover, (2) for much-needed revenue, this is a losing proposition. In an era where content is given away for free in order to produce a sale—the shrewd notion of free tasters to lure in the curious, obscuring your headlines deaden curiosity by the miserly action of deliberately obscuring the little free content newspapers show on the upper half of the first page.

 

Revenue can be had through special offers and tie-ins with exclusive companies. Exclusivity should go hand-in-hand with exquisite reporting. Truly unique newspapers, which provide novel rather than recycled content, have thick social capital that they can draw on for higher ad prices, for special offers with honored establishments, affiliate programs, and other arbiters of power. This, rather than sales, is really the primary income stream. But the moment that quality goes down, that uniqueness becomes a liability rather than a treasure, and conformity to the sterile standards of NewsCorp reigns, newspapers become desperate enterprises. They scramble in shambles to keep up the facade of sophistication while serving up only fluff—and still are bemused at dwindling readerships and relevance. Relevance is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Investigative journalism, thoughtful, unorthodox yet principled reporting, and the courage to take stands on controversial issues for the sake of the polity define and build the reputation of news businesses.

 

Diversity in news reporting is needed now more than ever. The dilution of debate to shrill assertions of opinion, often attached with ad hominum uncivil behavior has overwhelmed the 4th estate as fake news. Like the replacement of fact with self-interested, self-promoting fiction (oleaginously patinated as “alternative facts”) has become a major force in monopoly-controlled news companies. The notion of the “free press” even sounds quaint in 2018. While some online groups like Civil aim to harness the trust-embedded authentication of blockchain to develop a new form of press, at best, one has to choose and pick from the grey literature amongst the deluge of SEO (search engine optimized) websites that pay and play to have higher Google rankings. Thus, whatever real journalism that exists, in our quixotic market economy, gets buried at the bottom; while the froth and disinformation rises to the top (in part, because it is financially interested to a magnitude that real journalism never has been and never could be).

 

So, to remake themselves, brick-and-mortar news agencies producing physical (and electronic) products, must lean in to Cory Doctorow’s adage that “Information doesn’t want to be free. People do.” This means giving people the best news agencies have to offer, for free, if possible, with longer, more detailed versions available for purchase (or for favors, such as re-posting, affiliate programs, etc.). Countless creative win-win concepts exist for the flagging newspaper business—if only they take the moral, political, and economic high-ground and learn to adapt rather resist our strange new information environment.